Role of Childhood Trauma in Fear of Happiness and Self-Concept of Young Adults

The present study was carried out to explore the relationship between childhood trauma, fear of happiness, and self-concept in young adults. A convenient sampling strategy was used to approach 200 young adults (men = 50 %, women = 50%). The Childhood Trauma Questionnaire (Bernstein et al., 1994), Fear of Happiness Scale (Joshanloo, 2013) and Robson Self-concept Questionnaire Scale (Robson, 1989) were used in the study. Findings indicated a significant positive correlation between childhood trauma and fear of happiness. A significant negative correlation was found between childhood trauma and self-concept and fear of happiness and self-concept. The results of multiple linear regression showed that childhood trauma and fear of happiness are significant negative predictors of self-concept. Furthermore, the Independent sample t-test indicated that women reported higher levels of childhood trauma, fear of happiness, and lower levels of self-concept than men. The study has wide implications in clinical, counselling and educational settings.

Keywords: Childhood trauma, fear of happiness, self-concept, young adults

Childhood is a unique time of psychological and cognitive development, and adults with a history of maltreatment during childhood are at increased risk for a range of psychiatric problems (Kessler & Davis, 1997). Santrock (2001) has confirmed that what we experience in childhood greatly impacts our whole life as it prepares us for physical and emotional adulthood. Approximately one in four children experience child abuse or neglect in their lifetime (Komori et al., 2019).  Of maltreated children, 18% are abused physically, 78% are neglected, and 9% are abused sexually (Jawadi et al., 2019). The fatality rate for child maltreatment is 2.2 per 1000 children annually, making it the second leading cause of death in children younger than age one (McAnee et al., 2019). Globally, 500 million to 1.5 million children suffer violence every year. In the USA, there are more than 3 million reported cases of child abuse and neglect. More than 2,000 deaths and 18,000 permanent disabilities happen every year because of child abuse and neglect in the USA. In Pakistan, no official data exists on various types of childhood abuse. A local NGO named Sahil monitored 91 National and local newspapers in which a total of 3445 cases of child abuse were reported in the year 2017.  According to an unofficial report by a news article in 2014, 15-25% of children are sexually abused in Pakistan. In Karachi, 88.7% of school children reported physical abuse; 17% of 300 school children in Rawalpindi/ Islamabad were sexually abused (1 in 5 boys and 1 in 7 girls); 72% of the victims/survivors who were abused were below the age of 13 years. In 80% of cases, the abuser is a close acquaintance (Kane, 1998).  

Child maltreatment is a historically underappreciated social problem often compounded by the difficulty of accurately determining the validity of allegations of abuse (Allen & Tussey, 2012). This childhood trauma is an overwhelming tragedy in our world today, from physical and emotional abuse and neglect to sexual abuse. The term Childhood trauma is defined as the experience of single or multiple events by a child that is emotionally painful or distressful, which often leads to serious lifelong damage to physical and mental health (Pechtel, 2011). Commonly studied early childhood stressors include physical, sexual, emotional or verbal abuse, neglect, social deprivation, disaster or household dysfunctions (including witnessing violence, criminal activity, parental separation, parental death or illness, poverty, and substance abuse) (Brown et al. 2009). 

Contemporary Trauma theory describes that childhood trauma “overwhelms the ordinary human adaptation to life” (Herman, 1992) and the person’s sense of control, which may lead to maladaptive internalization of the event. Such maladaptive internalization may disturb bio-psychosocial functioning, healthy development, and brain performance in regions related to emotions, behavior, and executive functioning (Lizeretti et al., 2012). Contemporary Trauma Theory provides a theoretical framework for understanding the impact trauma has on a person’s functioning and is based on the following central properties:  

a) Dissociation: Dissociation in trauma “entails a division of an individual’s personality, that is, of the dynamic, bio-psychosocial system as a whole that determines his or her characteristic mental and behavioral actions” (Nijenhuis & Van der Hart, 2011). Dissociation is the main defense mechanism used by a victim to negotiate and tolerate the horrific traumatic experience (Suleiman, 2008).

b) Attachment:  Childhood trauma impacts a person’s ability to develop healthful interpersonal relationships and establish trust, leading to impairment in the ability to form secure attachments with others and to interruptions in interpersonal relationships (O’Connor & Elklit, 2008). 

c) Reenactment: A phenomenon in which victims seek relationships and display behaviours that reenact the original traumatic event (Courtois & Ford, 2016). Reenactment elicits an intense emotional state that releases tension or anxiety and provides the person with a sense of control and connectedness (Van der Kolk, 2014). 

d) Long-term effect on later adulthood: Unresolved Childhood trauma may have devastating effects on functioning in adulthood (Becker-Blease & Freyd, 2005). Trauma that a child experiences inhibit appropriate development and predispose the child to negative recurrence later in life, including comorbidity in physical and mental health problems (Ross, 2000). In addition, CT diminishes the basic sense of self and destroys intrapersonal and interpersonal capacities (Courtois, 2008).

e) Impairment in emotional capacities: Emotional numbing and the breakdown of the self-regulatory system are direct impacts of trauma on the brain and on the adaptive functioning of the limbic system, the part of the brain that supports a variety of functions, including the emotional life (Badenoch, 2008). Traumatic events, and especially prolonged exposure to trauma, which is typical in childhood abuse or neglect, diminish the sense of baseline state of both emotional and physical calm or comfort, resulting in hyper-arousal symptoms that include hypervigilant, anxiety, agitation, night terror, and somatization (Van der Kolk et al., 2006). Victims of CT display compromised ability to regulate their moods and their emotional responses as adults, including the ability to identify emotions in self and others, to understand emotions, and to self-regulate, which may lead to dissociation and dissociative identity disorder in extreme cases of abuse (Salovey & Sluyter, 1997). 

Trauma in childhood is a grave psychosocial, medical, and public policy problem that has serious consequences for its victims and for society (Michael, 2014).  Although trauma in childhood can have many shapes, the most discussed dimensions of childhood trauma are six. They are named Emotional abuse, Physical abuse, Sexual abuse, Emotional neglect, Physical neglect and Minimization or Denial. Children who experience maltreatment have been shown to be at heightened risk for problems in all domains of development, i.e., emotional, cognitive, physical and behavioural (Schnoff & Phillips, 2000); these can also be referred to as the causes of childhood trauma for any person. The literature demonstrates that childhood trauma survivors are prone to some kind of psychological problems, ranging from minor to major ones. As fear of happiness is a type of phobia that lies under the category of anxiety disorders, it has been studied that childhood trauma can be a leading cause of fear of happiness. Moreover, an individual's self-concept is also affected by the trauma faced in childhood, which mostly inclines toward a negative self-concept. 

Fear of Happiness

Fear of happiness is the belief that happiness may have negative consequences implying that it should be avoided (Joshanloo, 2014). The concept of fear of happiness constitutes a relatively stable normative belief domain constituted by the notion that certain personal relations with happiness should be avoided for one or more reasons. Fear of happiness is characterized as a relatively stable belief that experiencing different positive emotions may negatively affect individuals’ well-being (Joshanloo, 2013). In order to prevent possible unpleasant consequences, individuals tend to suppress their authentic feelings, dampen the experience of positive affect or avoid any action that is associated with success, overexcitement and joy (Joshanloo, 2013). 

Şar et al. (2019) conducted a research study on fear of happiness, childhood psychological trauma and dissociation among college students. A stepwise regression analysis revealed that depersonalization, childhood emotional neglect, and physical abuse predicted fear of happiness among women, which was predicted by absorption among men. Women had higher scores than men on childhood emotional abuse and fear of “cheerfulness ends up with bad faith.” The results prove that there is a relationship between childhood psychological trauma, dissociation, and fear of happiness. Women seem to be more vulnerable in this path of obsessional thinking which affects different realms in male and female genders.


The term self-concept is a general term used to refer to how someone thinks about, evaluates or perceives themselves. According to Baumeister (1999), self-concept is the individual's belief about himself or herself, including the person's attributes and who and what the self is. Self-concept is the value an individual places on his or her characteristics, qualities, abilities, and actions (Woolfolk 2001). The self-concept, a cognitive concept, appears and grows along with the development of all components of psychical life, developing in several phases (Allport, 1981). Self-concept is not inborn; its development is a process which evolves through one’s entire lifespan as the individual discovers new possibilities and faces new experiences. A person always builds his perception of self from the environment he grows up. Suppose an individual grew up in a situation where he faced maltreatment throughout his childhood years. In that case, it is possible that he will build a self-concept where he categorizes himself in the category of low achievers. If a person’s balance between his real and ideal self is disrupted, it can also lead to the formation of a negative self-concept. 

Self-concept is the perception a person has about himself/herself. A person's self-concept develops with many factors, including environmental, developmental, familial, social and other aspects. Self-concept can be positive as well as negative. A positive self-concept means an individual has self-confidence, believes in his abilities and capacities and deals with the outer world with an optimistic approach. On the other hand, a negative self-concept means a person is not confident in him or herself, doubts his abilities and potential and has a pessimistic approach toward the world as well as themselves. Self-concept is a trait that builds in the early years of a person’s life. Thus, events that happen in childhood play a major role in the development of a certain type of self-concept. Childhood trauma is also known as one of the leading causes of fear of happiness. Fear of happiness, also known as Cherophobia, comes under the category of anxiety disorders, specifically phobias. A lot of individuals silently suffer from this phobia, not even knowing about it. The variable is understudied in the research field of psychology. However, studies have shown that childhood trauma is one of the potential causes of Cherophobia. Trauma that has its roots in an individual's childhood most likely affects one’s self-concept negatively. It can lead to low confidence in oneself and their decisions. It can cause the formation of negative and pessimistic schemas of life and the outer world. Moreover, negative self-concept due to childhood trauma can lead to several psychological problems such as anxiety disorders, depression, PTSD and personality disorders.  

The present study is all about exploring different aspects of childhood trauma and how it can lead to Cherophobia (fear of happiness) and how an individual's self-concept is affected by adverse childhood experiences and fear involved in experiencing happiness. Further studies ((Felitti, 2009; Slaninova & Stainerova, 2015; Wu et al., 2021) showed that psychological maltreatment was negatively associated with life satisfaction through self-esteem and through the pathway from self-esteem to self-compassion.  Despite empirical evidence, the relationship between these adverse experiences with fear of happiness still remains understudied, specifically in the Pakistani context. Fear of happiness is a rather new construct that is scarcely studied in the field of psychology. Therefore, understanding the link between childhood trauma and fear of happiness and self-concept will provide valuable literature in this regard.



To investigate the relationship between childhood trauma, fear of happiness and self-concept in young adults.

To examine childhood trauma and fear of happiness as predictors of self-concept. 

To find out the gender differences in terms of childhood trauma, fear of happiness and self-concept in young adults.


Childhood trauma and fear of happiness will be negative predictors of self-concept in young adults. 

There will be gender differences in terms of childhood trauma, fear of happiness and self-concept in young adults. 


A sample (N = 200) of young adults aged 15-39 years, an equal number of males and females, was selected from Lahore (Pakistan). Through a convenient sampling strategy, participants included having a minimum of twelve years (Intermediate) education. The inclusion criteria for sample selection were participants with no physical disability and participants whose parents were alive during their early childhood years. The data was collected from the general population of young adults to assess whether they ever suffered from any kind of trauma because of the unavailability of any trauma centers from where the researcher could collect statistics about childhood trauma.  


Childhood Trauma Questionnaire

Childhood Trauma Questionnaire (Bernstein et al., 1994) is a screening tool for histories of abuse and neglect. This self-report measure includes 28 items which measure five types of maltreatment Emotional, Physical, and sexual abuse, emotional and physical neglect. A 5-point Likert scale is used for the responses, and the score ranges from 1 = Never True to 5 = Very Often True. Some items on the scale are, “People in my family said hurtful or insulting things to me.” “I believe that I was emotionally abused.” Cronbach’s alpha coefficients for 28 items have been found highly satisfactory .95 (Bernstein 1994).

Fear of Happiness Scale

Fear of Happiness Scale (FOH; Joshanloo, 2013) is a 5-item scale which is used to assess a person’s perceptions about fearing happiness. It is a 7-point Likert scale in which participants rate items ranging from 1 = “Strongly disagree” to 5 = “Strongly agree.” Examples of items include “I prefer not to be too joyful because usually joy is followed by sadness” and “Having lots of joy and fun causes bad things to happen.” The internal consistency reliability coefficient of the scale has been reported as satisfactory (Bülbül, 2018). 

Robson Self-Concept Questionnaire

The Self-concept of the individuals was measured by Robson Self-concept Questionnaire (RSCQ; Robson, 1989). The scale consists of 30 items. Respondents endorsed each item on an 8-point Likert scale where 0 = Completely Disagree to 7 = Completely Agree. Examples of the items include, “I am not embarrassed to let people know my opinions.”  “I can usually make up my mind and stick to it.”  And “If I really try, I can overcome most of my problems.” The original authors reported Cronbach’s alpha estimates as satisfactory. 

Demographic Sheet, The researcher, constructed it to gather information from the participants about their gender, age, education, occupation, marital status, and living status of parents.


The research was carried out by following APA ethical standards of research; permission was taken from the authors to use instruments for data collection. Participants were approached by the researcher through convenient sampling, and written informed consent was taken. They were informed about the aims and objectives of the study and were assured about the voluntary nature of participation, confidentiality, anonymity, and right to quit. At the end of the data collection, the participants were thanked for their cooperation.                         


For analyzing the results, descriptive and inferential statistics were applied. To determin the relationship of study variables, Pearson Product Moment Correlation and Regression analysis were used. An Independent sample t-test was used to examine the gender differences. All the analyses were conducted using SPSS 23.

Table 1 shows the number of items, mean, standard deviation, alpha reliability and range of CTQ, FOH and RSCQ. The reliability of CTQ was good, i.e., .75, as well as its subscales, namely physical abuse, emotional abuse, sexual abuse, physical neglect, emotional neglect and denial, which were .76, .79, .91, .72, .45 and .34, respectively. The reliability of FOH was also good, i.e., .74. Reliability of RSCQ was very good, i.e., .83. 

The mean values of CTQ show that participants of the study reported average childhood trauma and its subscales.  The mean value of FOH shows that participants reported higher than average fear of happiness. Similarly, the mean value of RSCQ was 144.43, showing that participants experience self-concept at an average level.

Table 2

Findings in Table 3 show that childhood trauma and fear of happiness are significant negative predictors of self-concept (β = -.70, p < .001 and β = -.17, p < .001). The value of R2 explains 61% variance in self-concept, which indicates that 61% change in self-concept can be accounted for by the effects of childhood trauma and fear of happiness. 

Table 4

The results indicated that there is a significant difference in childhood trauma in male and female young adults (t= -2.50*, p<.05). The means indicated that female young adults reported higher childhood trauma (M= 59.30(15.17) than young male adults (M=54.60(11.11). The results further showed a significant difference in fear of happiness in male and female young adults (t= -4.43***, p= .001), where the means revealed that female young adults reported more fear of happiness (M =23.86(7.52) than males (M=19.02(7.90). Moreover, the results indicated a significant gender difference in self-concept (t=2.12*, p=.03). The means reported that men possess better self-concept (M=148.41 (28.58) than women (M=140.44(28.68).  


The current research focused on examining the relationship between childhood trauma, fear of happiness and self-concept in young adults. The data were collected from Lahore. The present chapter contains discussions on the results obtained. The first hypothesis was to examine the relationship between the study variables, and the results provided support for the hypothesis.  A significant positive relationship was found between childhood trauma and fear of happiness. Moreover, a significant negative relationship was found between childhood trauma and self-concept. It implies that when an individual suffers from childhood trauma, he/she is prone to build up a fear of happiness and his/her self-concept is also negatively affected by the consequences of the childhood trauma. Similar findings have been reported by Şar et al. (2019), who examined the relationship between fear of happiness, childhood psychological trauma and dissociation among college students, indicating a significant negative relationship between these variables.

Further continuing with the first hypothesis, the relationship between childhood trauma and self-concept was assessed. The results reflected a significant negative relationship between the said variables. The findings reported by Slaninova and Stainerova (2015), who explored trauma as a component of self-concept in undergraduate students, depict that trauma significantly impacts an individual's self-concept and causes lower self-acceptance, self-image, and self-esteem. Social identity theory by Tajfel and Turner (1986) explains that a person’s perception of himself/herself is built upon several factors, i.e., social, environmental or familial. Trauma in early life can visibly shake up one’s perception and effectively lead to a negative self-concept.

The second hypothesis in the present study was about childhood trauma and fear of happiness being the predictors of self-concept. The findings supported that childhood trauma and fear of happiness were significant negative predictors of self-concept. Bedwell and Hickman (2022) also found the effects of childhood trauma on an individual’s self-image. His findings suggest that early childhood maltreatment victims are predicted to develop a negative self-concept later in life. Bowlby’s attachment theory (1982) explains that insecure and avoidant attachment styles and unresolved traumas, either from childhood or adolescence, can lead to the development of anxiety issues. As phobias come under the category of anxiety disorders in DSM-V, cherophobia is also caused by the unresolved trauma of childhood. Henceforth, fear of happiness and childhood trauma can be significantly considered negative predictors of self-concept. Findings also showed significant gender differences where women reported higher childhood trauma as compared to men. Findings from several studies have highlighted similar gender differences (Xiang et al., 2018; Zhou, 2016). 

Further, it was found that men and women differ significantly in terms of fear of happiness. Women were reported to have a greater fear of happiness than men. These findings can be explained by the theory of restrictive emotionality by Jansz (2000). According to this theory, men tend to inhibit the expression of certain emotions and are unwilling to self-disclose themselves. It sometimes happens due to society's rigid mentality and standards towards men. On the other hand, women tend to express their feelings of happiness, sadness, anger or longing more easily. The reason is that women tend to be less restrictive of their expression of emotions. Moreover, women's hormonal cycles play an important role in feeling any certain emotion. Findings from the previous literature have also supported the results of the current study. 

Moreover, it was revealed that women reported more negative self-concepts than men. Previous literature has also supported these findings, for instance, a study conducted by Delker and Freyd (2017), who worked on childhood trauma and its impacts on the self-concept of young adults. The results indicated that there were significant gender differences in men and women regarding self-concept who suffered from childhood trauma. 

Overall, it is concluded from the findings of the present study that childhood trauma and fear of happiness have a significant positive relationship. At the same time, childhood trauma has a significant negative relationship with the self-concept of young adults. Additionally, childhood trauma and fear of happiness are significant predictors of self-concept. Gender differences were also found to be significant regarding study variables in the present study. The present study's findings contribute to creating awareness about the psychological and emotional issues of young adults suffering from childhood trauma. The study has wide implications in counselling, clinical and educational settings.


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About Author

Saba Jamshaid and Faqiha Anjum

Govt. Islamia Graduate College for Women, Cooper Road, Lahore, Pakistan